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Don Ruben/In Memoriam

© Larry Hamill

September 15, 2011

Don Ruben: A Class Act


Legendary lawyer excelled

in courtroom, conversation and cooking

By Maggie Newkirk


One night in the early 1970s, a young Columbus lawyer named Bruce Campbell happened in on a get-together at a neighbors East Broad Street apartment across the park.

“I’ll never forget it,” Campbell said last week, of the first time he met Columbus legend, criminal defense attorney Don Ruben. “It was like taking a trip to New York. Here were these cool people, this really nice art on the walls, his shoes.”

Ruben died this September at age 72. He was known for his flair for living and fashion, for his fine-tuned moral compass and love of the law, for his faith, his community involvement, his skill at both the lost art of conversation and making soup. He defended the unpopular, took on causes others wouldn’t touch, with his iconoclastic nose for right and wrong, according to Ruben’s eclectic and deep reservoir of admirers and friends.

“Donnie was one of the most righteous human beings I have ever met in my life, and that’s not always what you expect from a lawyer,” said Vanessa Kaukonen, who, along with her husband, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, owns the Fur Peace Ranch near Athens. “He not only supported the underdog, but he really expected people to behave righteously. And when they didn’t, he called them on it. That’s just the way he lived his life. Whenever we were out in a group, I wanted to look around and say ‘Look who I’m with.’ I always felt so honored to be in his presence.”

“Not that Don was a saint,” she said. But Ruben brought people together in the venues that became his community. Merchants cried at the North Market. When they heard he was gone, said Annemarie Wong, co-operator of North Market Poultry & Game, “We were all just devastated.”

The loss hit hard at the Short North Tavern, too, said John Allen, whose High Street bar gave the Short North its name: “This is the 30-year anniversary of the Short North Tavern and Don was there for 20 of them. A lot of people have been through this place and Don’s not the first to pass away. But some people’s passing leaves a bigger hole than others. Don left a big, big hole for me.”

Courtroom and clothing

Ruben grew up on East Broad Street at The Royal York Apartments and later in Bexley where his parents built a home at Roosevelt and Bryden. He graduated from Columbus Academy and, in 1961, from Middlebury College in Vermont. He got his law degree at the University of Cincinnati, choosing the school, according to wife Lelia Cady, because he liked their basketball team. He worked for Ohio Attorney General William B. Saxbe, and as an assistant Franklin County prosecutor. It was all to prepare for his life as a criminal defense lawyer. His early success at trial law established his reputation for his entire career: “He was not afraid to try a case, and if he deemed a case worthy for trial, he would most likely kick your ass,” Cady said in an email.

John Hurlbut became lifelong friends with Ruben during his trial lawyer heyday, when Hurlbut was a student. “He helped out a lot of people with legal problems.”

“He was older than us, like a big brother. But he always kept a very liberal attitude. As famous as he got, he never let that take over his world. He had a pulse with the street. When I would be with him, he would run into people and he’d look at everybody with respect. He’d show the same respect to a judge as he’d show to a homeless guy at the North Market.”

“He championed causes that no one else would champion,” said Rabbi Gerry Zelermyer, who attended Middlebury with Ruben and served for a period as the rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim where Ruben was a member for 72 years. At one point early in his law career, Zelermyer said, Ruben learned that street people were being prosecuted because they couldn’t give evidence of their assets: “He worked for the abolition of that kind of statute. He saw things that other people overlooked.”

Former Columbus Mayor Greg Lashutka knew Ruben for 40 years, and watched him work a courtroom and a jury. He was phenomenal, a top flight trial lawyer, he said.

Don Ruben, 1969

“He got into criminal defense work when drugs were first coming on the scene,” he said. “It was usually marijuana. The other stuff hadn’t really come on the scene. Our society was trying to sort out how to approach it all, trying to figure out how to handle things. The whole subject got hot, but Don was always even tempered. He was helpful to Ohio having a more rational discussion on that.” In a tumultuous time, Ruben also became a voice of reason in the debate over how to handle drug policy, said Lashutka, who said he and Ruben bonded over their shared center-right political bent.

“Don was a very moral man. He was probably the warmest, kindest human being I’ve ever met.”

Ruben was also a stylish man. Lashutka said Ruben and a law partner would arrive at court in Columbus or Delaware wearing “these high platform heeled shoes, capes, hats. He was really just a Midwestern guy, but there he was. It was as much marketing as anything else. He had a great sense of that. He played it to the hilt and it worked out very, very well for him.”

The dress and shoes calmed down, but Ruben never lost his sartorial panache. Elizabeth Lessner, founder of the Columbus Food League, whose Columbus restaurants include Betty’s Fine Food & Spirits, Dirty Franks Hot Dog Palace, The Jury Room, the Surly Girl Saloon and Tip Top Kitchen and Cocktails, said she first became fascinated with Ruben because of his t-shirts. She remembers a vintage Metallica concert tee, a Zippy the Pinhead tee and a host of tees with lawyer jokes: One said “Talk is cheap, until you hire a lawyer.”

Cady remembers being pulled aside by perfect strangers at the North Market, who wanted to know who Ruben was. They’d seen him around for years, they said, and, not knowing his name, referred to him as “Stylin’ Old Guy.”

“They’d come home and say to each other ‘I saw Stylin’ Old Guy at the market, or I saw Stylin’ Old Guy downtown,’” Cady said. Ruben laughed out loud when he heard it: “Don loved that.”

Lawyer life abandoned

In the late 1980s, Ruben cut his law practice down to nearly nothing. Some called it an early retirement. Ruben did not.

He characterized the move as a boycott against developments – like mandatory sentencing guidelines and prosecutors’ growing use of snitches – he said were undermining the integrity of the criminal justice system.

He took cases that interested him, and served on the state bar’s ethics committee. He and Campbell, the lawyer so awed by Ruben’s apartment decades earlier, traveled to a federal prison in West Virginia to interview prisoners whose families said they had been misled by a lawyer. The lawyer was temporarily suspended because of their work.

Ruben’s stature in the legal community didn’t dim, according to Allen, who would watch other lawyers seek him out at the Short North Tavern over the years. “Their respect for him, I would always find it fascinating. He’d been retired a long time and a lot of time people don’t know who you are anymore when that’s the case. That wasn’t true with him. It was an indication of his stature.”

The good life

After leaving the full-time practice of trial law, Ruben became an investor, a cook, an arts supporter and a collector of interesting music, t-shirts and people. According to Hurlbut, he stayed interested in new music trends well beyond the age when most people would be locked into genres from their youth.

He invested with an eye on ethics, which often put him ahead of the game, Hurlbut said. Years before Starbucks had a shop on every corner, Ruben had the coffee shipped to his Summit Chase apartment from the only place you could then get it – Seattle. Ruben had invested in Starbucks because he liked the way the company treated employees. When local company Stauf’s opened their first small coffee roaster shop in his neighborhood Ruben supported them, making friends of the founders. The company’s president brought coffee beans and dark chocolates to Ruben’s home after he got sick.

Ruben’s cousin, Rodney Wasserstrom, CEO of The Wasserstrom Company, used to meet up with him at the North Market to discuss politics and markets. He was “very astute in understanding Wall Street and the public markets,” Wasserstrom said.

He studied politicians with the same rigor with which he studied companies, Wasserstrom added. Libertarian by nature, Ruben backed candidates based as much on his opinion of their character as their party.

Ruben continued to champion the people and causes he believed in. He worked for years with House of Hope for Alcoholics, a residential treatment center serving the uninsured and vulnerable. He advocated an end to marijuana prohibition and for the swift legalization of medical uses for marijuana.

He also championed the local art scene. Columbus artists knew Ruben as a man who gave far more than lip service to their work, said Roger Williams, the Columbus sculptor and deconstructionist painter. Ruben didn’t just buy local work, but he showed up at openings and shows – almost singlehandedly making them cool in the process.

“He’d buy a piece of art, then he’d come to your show,” he said. “And when you were down to your last dime, because you spent it all on art supplies, he’d invite you up his apartment for a bowl of soup.”

Photographer and friend Larry Hamill also enjoyed Ruben’s support: “When I had an opening for my art work, he was always there. He was a true mensch.

Don Ruben, Kathy Dunaway, Lelia Cady, Jon Putnam, Louie Seidensticker, DooDah parade 2006. © Larry Hamill

Food and friendship

Ruben was a regular at a number of venues, particularly around downtown. The Short North Tavern was among them. The bar’s diverse patrons, some there because of their politics, some for sports, fitted Ruben perfectly, owner Allen said. “You have to enjoy people with different points of view than your own here, and give and take to survive” he said. “At that, Don was damned good. He could put together a hell of an argument to support whatever he was supporting. He did like to share his knowledge and wisdom.”

Ruben also became a consummate cook.

He was well known among the city’s food people, said Lessner: “All the restaurateurs knew him and loved him and respected him,” she said.

The most popular side dish on the menu at Frank’s came from Ruben, she said. “We were just sitting around the table at dinner and he thought it up,” she said. “He said, ‘Everybody does fried onion rings. You should do leeks.’”

Among friends, Ruben was famous for his soups. He kept his handwritten recipes in special binders that no one was allowed to touch.

He brought samples back to the North Market sometimes, so that the vendors would know that they were selling a gourmet ingredient.

Ruben stuck to the basics: “He made a summer sauce with cherry tomatoes in quarters, and olive oil, with fresh basil and garlic,” said Hurlbut. “You’d see how something so simple can be so wonderful. His whole life was like that. I’ve been blessed with a lot of friends in my life. There was no one like Don.”

Ruben shopped almost daily at the North Market and cooked only with what was in season. He was “doing the whole farm to table thing 15 years before anyone else had ever heard of it,” Lessner said.

At the market, Ruben both shopped and engaged with the vendors, fellow shoppers and the farmers outside.

She said Ruben and her shop partner would shout to each other across the stoves, “talking the latest political outrage to each other. It was very funny. He was so engaging, he was like the glue that held us all together.”“The thing about Don that was really cool – and that’s hard to come by – was that he had the art of conversation,” said Wong, the poultry vendor. “People don’t know how to do that anymore. You see all these people in here and they’re on their laptops or their phones.”

Ruben learned he had a rare and aggressive form of head and neck cancer on New Year’s Eve. Over the next eight and a half months, he would have surgery, chemotherapy and radiation and would lose his tastebuds and the ability to swallow. Wong made a special gelatinous broth for him out of chicken feet, to help him heal.

He handled his illness with grace and optimism, said Cady, his wife. He was working out and appearing to get better when he went back to the hospital short of breath in September.

The cancer had spread but Ruben never learned that. He died on September 15.


Don Ruben’s Ohio Summer Tomato Sauce

  •  1 garlic clove
  • chopped fresh basil, torn
  • Ohio cherry or plum tomatoes
  • olive oil

Cook pasta, drain, set aside. In a heavy skillet, heat olive oil with one pat unsalted butter. Add chopped garlic and saute on low until golden. Increase heat, add to skillet halved Ohio cherry or quartered plum tomatoes, cook briefly until slightly wilted. Salt and pepper to taste. Add pasta to skillet, toss with sauce. To serve, garnish with basil and Parmesan reggiano.


Editor’s Note:

This article originally appeared in the Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio, November 2011 Issue. It is reprinted with permission of the author.